A few days ago at SXSW I sat down with writer-director David Gordon Green. During the exclusive video interview, Green talked about his latest film, Manglehorn, which stars Al Pacino as a tired and lonely locksmith trying to overcome the loss of his one true love years ago. We also talked about his next movie, Our Brand Is Crisis, which stars Sandra Bullock and is based on the 2005 documentary of the same name from Rachel Boynton, and revolves around the use of American political campaign strategies in Bolivia to help elect Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada as president.
For more on Manglehorn, which also stars Holly Hunter, Chris Messina and Harmony Korine, click here.
For more on Our Brand is Crisis, which is being produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov from a script by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), click here.
Here’s the interview followed by a full transcript:
David Gordon Green:
- [0:00 – 3:10]: Talks about walking to work and what it was like working with Al Pacino.
- [3:11- 5:30]: Discusses Manglehorn script, shooting the film, and comments on a specific scene.
- [5:31 – 8:35]: Talks about casting Harmony Korine and his relationship with the director.
- [8:36 – 11:00]: Discusses his next film Our Band Is Crisis and how it came together.
Question: We’re here at SXSW in Austin, and you just mentioned you walked to work.
DAVID GORDON GREEN: I did, I walked to work today. It was cool.
Well it’s nice when the industry shows up on your doorstep and you don’t have to go too far. I get on a lot of airplanes so it’s nice sometimes not have to deal with security and transportation, but just get on your tennis shoes and go to work.
You told a great story yesterday before the screening, of how this project came together and how you got to work with Al, like everyone who loves movies with Al fucking Pacino. What was the experience like working with him, especially working with who –I’m assuming– is a hero of yours from his work?
Yeah, I mean, he certainly is an icon and one of my idols. I designed this movie for him, it was written by Paul Logan with the seed of an idea I had about Al after meeting Al. I wanted to access this vulnerability that he hadn’t expressed on film in a while, a specific part of vulnerability, almost a juvenile character, and an adolescent character coming through an older aged man. So once the script was where I wanted it to be I sent it to Al and he immediately signed on to it without any reservations really and some ideas and where all really collaborative and increased the intimacy of the portrait. It was a bizarre joy to find someone that you’ve put on this pedestal, creatively, all your life as a viewer and just an admirer of his work and then you meet someone that’s so down to earth and human; and actually has all these attributes of youth, that it’s really fun to engineer a performance that demands he reveal some of this personal life to you so you really get to know a guy. The best part of making films for me is the relationships that I develop with actors and he was no exception. It was just amazing, not only because of the balance of his body of previous work but just the pleasure of going to work every day and hanging out with Al Pacino.
Was this the most friends and family that wanted to visit a movie set of, all your movies?
Oh man it was wild, it was. A lot of people showed up to say ‘Hey’, but it was fun. He’s [Al Pacino] not an actor that hides in his trailer, you know, we’re shooting –It’s a low budget movie– mostly in the neighborhood in and around where I live here in Austin, and he would just be out on the street sitting in a chair reading the paper. It was very casual, drinking a macchiato, running lines and rehearing, but it was very not as in the shadows and sheltered and protected as I was anticipating someone like that to be. So just the availability that I discovered through him or that I was able to work with him in that way was amazing.
How longer was your first cut versus what I saw last night?
We had a lot of cuts. There was like an 80-page script. I’m a big fan of this, of shoot short scripts and shoot a lot of different options and do a lot of improvisation. So we had multiple endings that we shot, we had some more tragic than others. So we played with it a lot, we played with the character, we’d shoot a scene one way and then we tried to shoot it – we’d shoot it dramatically and then we tried a comedic version of it or we’d try doing it with no dialogue at all. We really experimented and it was a very playful production process, so the editing room was equally that, ‘Do we shoot that car accident?’ it wasn’t conceived as this one shot slow motion type of event. But when we were looking at the dailies –Colin Patton, my editor, and I were looking– to get a pace of the film it just had this surreal quality that we really wanted to heighten the backdrop height of the universe that Manglehorn lives in. The editing process for me is just a creative playful arena rather than just constructing what you shot and storyboarded and designed, for me it’s, ‘let’s just start a path with a note and then see where we want to end’ much like the writing process is for me as well. This one went some unpredictable directions, we shot some drastically, radically different things for the movie and then when we were watching it some of it would be more appealing than others and we put together the one we liked the best.
I think the scene that really played well in the theater –Maybe for me because I was just so frustrated– was that diner scene, with him [Al Pacino] and Holly [Hunter]. You just want him to be more in the room with her.
I sat next to my dad watching it for the first time and he wouldn’t look at the screen during that scene [Laughs]. I thought he fell asleep and I looked at him and he’s just shaking his head.
It’s a very uncomfortable scene as an audience member.
The night after I filmed that scene I emailed Todd Solondz and said, ‘I did all I could to day to try and channel you, brother’ [Laughs].
You also cast an interesting person as a co-star in the movie, talk a little bit about what the motivation was and what did he bring to the table.
Who are you talking about?
Oh, Harmony. What did he bring to the table? He’s fun as hell, dude. I’ve known him for a long time and he’ll send me a script every now and then or we’ll shoot the shit about how frustrating it is trying to get something weird made, so it’s just a fun kind of bounce ideas off of constantly. I was at SXSW two years ago when he played Spring Breakers there and [James] Franco and the ladies were all up on stage and then Harmony is out, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off Harmony which is a funny, strange –probably says more about me. But I just thought Harmony was this really charismatic, interesting dude on stage, I had never seen him in that light I’d just eaten tacos with him or something. But seeing the guy on stage handling a crowd, it was amazing, it was like a magical thing, and it was when we started to put the movie together and I had just convinced Al to do it and so I’m trying to think who should play the son, who should play Gary, and who would play his love interest. I remember I was at the Dallas airport and I got some random email from Harmony about something and I wrote him back, I was like, ‘Yeah answer this question, but also, would you be interested in acting in a movie with Al Pacino?’ he wrote back, ‘Sounds dope’ [Laughs].
Sounds like him.
But it was fun, it was great. Me and him and Al could sit around and talk about ‘70s movies all day, which is the greatest thing you could do as a film geek.
I really hope you filmed that.
Oh, man. So many times whenever we were relighting it was almost like the one time in my life that I like the wait between lighting set ups, because sometimes it’s just tedious and boring and I want to get to filming, but in this case it was like, ‘OK, so where were you Al? Tell that story about the first time you met [Marlon] Brando.’ And then Harmony would be a big part of that, in talking about great old characters actors from the ‘70s and things like that, just too good. Harmony just has boundless energy, he can’t do the same twice, he’s not going to memorize a whole monologue and do something like that, but if you want what his natural energy and charisma is, man, he’s got tons of it. It’s also cool because you have a director there and you can be like, ‘oh, man I’m up against the clock, people are getting tired, were trying to shoot his scene’ and he’d say, ‘Well, here’s a quick way you can knock it out real quick and it might be an interesting way to look at it’ and then he’d always be right, so we’d just do that. So it’s kind of cool to be able to have somebody in addition to your traditional collaborators, my DP, and sound guy, and production designer; these are people I’ve worked with on eleven movies now and we have a great refined machine and how we deal with each other, and communicate, and inspire each other. But it’s great when you inject new blood into that that also has ideas and collaborates, and has the same kind of juvenile playful spirit that we all have.
I’m about to run out of time with you so I have to ask you, I’m very excited about Our Brand is Crisis.
Which I believe you’ve wrapped on?
Almost, almost. We’re shooting a little chapter so we have one more location to do.
What can you tease people about it? And you’ve landed a great cast.
It’s an amazing cast.
Yeah, how did that all come together?
Well, it came together –Sandra Bullock is the star of the movie, and we just put a great ensemble around her. Actresses like Ann Dowd and Zoe Kazan, actors like Anthony Mackie, Billy Bob Thornton, and Scoot McNairy, one of my favorites –Who actually lives down the road here. It’s inspired by the Rachel Boynton documentary of the same title that came out a few years ago about American political consultants in Bolivia, so it’s just amazing education going down to Bolivia and filming, and getting into a very politically-minded, politically-charged film. I haven’t done that, so it’s great to kick in some of the energy esthetic and intellect that a movie like that demands. It’s just a fun cast, playful. We get to really let those really talented people loose and do something I think is pretty distinctive within that genre.
When are people going to get their first look at it?
I don’t know, I don’t know. We haven’t really even talked about it. We made it really quietly and pretty economically, and we’ve kind of gone off the radar to whip it together. We haven’t even been talking about release dates yet, which is cool. Hopefully it’ll be back here next year at SXSW, that’d be fun.
That’s what I was going to ask. Do you see it as a Sundance movie, do you see it as a SXSW?
I don’t know, I’m not sure. I mean, its Warner Bros. so it’s a studio movie and, you know, we got some big guns behind it. That’ll be refreshing for me because you’re always trying to get these intimately-financed independent films –You’re trying to cram them into that market with minimal cost and stuff like that. So it’s nice to have people that actually can muscle a movie into the world behind that, which is going to be exciting for me.
Sandra Bullock can get into talks shows too.
Absolutely, yeah. She’s just awesome, man. You shoot a movie that’s very difficult and after the big chunk of production she’s like, ‘Let’s just take a vacation’ so a lot of the crew just goes and hangs out together even after you wrap. It’s the way to make movies, you just have to get the right people, the right voice, the right talent, and the right mindset.